Mary Stuart at Folger Shakespeare Theatre

Photo caption: Kate Eastwood Norris (left) as Mary Stuart and Holly Twyford as Queen Elizabeth. Photo by Teresa Wood. 

During the “Brews and Banter” Q&A session before a performance of “Mary Stuart” last Thursday, an audience member described the first act as “very German.”

“It just keeps pushing,” she said of the play, written by Friedrich Schiller in 1800 and turned into a sleek, blank-verse adaptation by Peter Oswald. The drama keeps this intensity throughout every moment, telling the story of the Scottish queen’s last days with such captivating economy that even though you know what ultimately happens, you can’t wait to see it unfold before you.

Kate Eastwood Norris, who plays “the Stuart,” called it a “delicious beast of a role.”

“I start with all the energy I need; I can’t warm up,” she said during the Q&A. She goes from argument to argument, fighting for her life against her jailers, her judges, and eventually, Queen Elizabeth herself (an excellent Holly Twyford).

Norris said that she struggled initially with the line readings, but her work with director Richard Clifford has helped her play the part with a refreshing timelessness.

“It has a great classical feel,” she said of the play, “but the language is pretty modern.”

Norris also doesn’t play the part with an English accent (most of the actors don’t), which she said was another challenge at first.

“How can I be a queen without an English accent?” she worried, but neither she nor Twyford needs to fall back on regal tropes to convince us they are monarchs. Both command your attention the moment they step on stage. Indeed, assistant director Cassie Ash said that Clifford waited until both Twyford and Norris were available before staging “Mary Stuart,” because he knew he wanted the two to play those roles.

The set is quite bare, which helps keep you focused on the scene at hand. “Richard wanted us to stand and deliver,” said Norris. There are no props, save for a throne, a table and a cabinet.

The whole show seems so authentic, so single-minded in its purpose—to portray the brutal reality of being a queen—that it’s easy to forget the show’s many historical inaccuracies, including the fact that Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart never met. But Katharine Pitt, the Folger Library’s humanities programs assistant, made an interesting point at the Q&A: Schiller was closer in time to the two queens than we are to him. Perhaps his depiction of their contentious relationship would not have been too far from the truth.

The show runs through March 8, and you should absolutely see it this weekend. You will think of nothing else but Mary and Elizabeth during the duration of the play.

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